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Some booing would be welcomed: How MLB umpires made it through a 'surreal' season

Tim Brown
·MLB columnist
·6-min read

For three months, they showed up in masks, having distanced themselves from other humans for the 21 hours between baseball games, having eaten meals from boxes with plastic forks and knives, having surrendered themselves to the cause and then reached the end of October through the narrowest of fissures.

For those three months they summoned energy from within and from each other, from a devotion to the job and to the team and to this plan to travel the country in a pandemic, because that’s the work and it was baseball season.

Now a few of them, the best among them, stand in the World Series, that close to having finished an uncommon commitment to an uncommon situation, end to end. Nobody’s throwing sledgehammers for a living or fearing the day rent is due or logging eight hours behind a square of smudged plexiglass, nothing like that.

They are calling balls and strikes, fair and foul and safe and out, the usual gig in unusual times, and so operating in the same bubble, moving about in the same Habitrail, logging the same hours with their families on handheld rectangles.

You might not have noticed the umpires, or considered them, in a 60-game season that became a postseason madhouse, which also is the job in all times. They were the guys asking managers to pull up their masks before spraying them with abuse and spittle. They were the guys reporting dutifully for work and happy for it. They were the guys who didn’t want to foul a baseball season that would have to operate on the narrowest of foundations.

“Everything,” Dan Iassogna said, “was different.”

Iassogna, 59, grew up in Shelton, Connecticut, home of the Wiffle Ball. He has been a major league umpire since 1999, a full-timer since 2004, umpired his first World Series in 2012 and became a crew chief this year. He is married with two college-aged daughters, lives outside Atlanta and this summer read two biographies — one of Bobby Kennedy and the other of Led Zeppelin. He umpired the National League Championship Series in Arlington and is one of four alternates for the World Series, which means he remains in the bubble and separate from the seven umpires chosen to work the games.

Three months ago, Iassogna, Andy Fletcher, Tripp Gibson and Ben May emerged from a tunnel at Cleveland’s Progressive Field. Iassogna, as the crew chief does on opening day, wore the plate umpire’s gear. He thought about how quiet it was. He looked up at the soaring tiers of the ballpark, across row after row of seats, and there was hardly a sound.

“Such a surreal experience,” he said.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 16:  Umpire Dan Iassogna #58 speaks to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the third inning against the Atlanta Braves in Game Five of the National League Championship Series at Globe Life Field on October 16, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Umpire Dan Iassogna presided over NLCS Game 5 between the Dodgers and Braves. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

What followed was a season unlike any other for Iassogna and 92 other major league umpires, some of whom would work as many as 59 or 60 games in 66 days, none of whom returned to their families until their seasons were over or were allowed to have a bad day. Due in part to preseason opt outs, 20 umpires worked their first big-league game and 15 called balls and strikes for the first time. In a typical year, that number is one or two.

Crews on the West Coast stayed west, from Texas over. Crews in the east and central regions, including Iassogna’s, occasionally crossed over. They stayed in team hotels, those chosen for health and safety purposes. They rode the same buses. They flew on many team charters. When those plans were unnecessary or not possible, the umpires piled into vans and were driven to the next city, overnight from San Francisco to Los Angeles or Baltimore to Boston or Dallas to Houston. They pushed the boundaries of umpire-player proximity and familiarity, sometimes calling the same team’s games for a week or longer. One crew saw the same team for 20 consecutive games.

Two umpires tested positive for the coronavirus before the season began and were quarantined before they started. In the course of the season, one umpire tested positive and the entire crew was isolated, leading to a veteran umpire scrambling to get from Tampa to Miami in time to work the plate. The test result was determined to be a false positive. The season count leading into the World Series, then, was zero true positive tests.

Along with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, who performed and endured in a season whose long- and short-term viability seemed fragile, so too did umpires meet the moment. Hesitant to intrude where they’d not previously belonged, umpires took their seats on team charters and passed players in hotel lobbies.

“There was some trepidation getting on charters with players,” Iassogna said. “That’s their space. And yet the clubs were unbelievably accommodating. Everybody was professional. There was a sense of, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together.’ And that was nice to see.”

Like most everyone else, they adhered to the protocols, leaned on their iPads and books to pass the time between games and then went back to work. Too distanced to play cards in the locker room (among those protocols, plate umpires were allowed to shower postgame, while the other three waited until returning to the hotel), soon those four umpires fell into a daily rhythm of talking about baseball, their profession and their experiences along the way. Iassogna was reminded of his early minor-league days, when he was given an assignment and told to buy a map, gas his car and find his hotel by reading the billboards on the way into town.

Given that, a few months doing the right things, following a few guidelines to keep others healthy, getting to do a job they adored, hardly seemed a hardship. Besides, he said, the work under unusual circumstances, the relationships formed within a group that only had the group and those long talks about the game would have some benefit.

“I would say we all became better umpires this year,” he said this week. “Not just me. It was, ‘Bring your own energy. Bring your own focus.’ Because there was so much chaos going on all around the world, for those 3 ½ hours, I just had to umpire a baseball game. It was the one part of the day we knew we had some control over.”

They made it work, just as most everyone else did. They showed up, believed it was for the best, helped folks at home cope for a few hours and tried to get it right. That’s the job today.

Not that Iassogna wouldn’t prefer it the old way, as everyone would. There is stuff he misses, he said, and he laughed.

“It’ll be nice to hear the boos again,” he said.

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